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The overhyping and overselling of mindfulness

Mindfulness is being promoted as a panacea for almost everything, from reducing anxiety to improving memory to preventing chronic illnesses to solving racism.

Mindfulness is now a multi-billion dollar industry.
Photo by Erik Brolin on Unsplash

Mindfulness meditation has become enormously popular — and profitable — in recent years. It’s being taught almost everywhere, from elementary school classrooms to corporate boardrooms.

To help you become, well, more mindful about your mindfulness, various companies now offer what seems like an endless variety of apps, books and videos, as well as a host of mindfulness-enhancing gadgets, such as cushions, candles and chimes.

Mindfulness is now a multi-billion dollar industry. That may be understandable given that mindfulness is being promoted as a panacea for almost everything, from reducing anxiety to improving memory to preventing chronic illnesses to solving racism.

Yet, as I’ve noted here in Second Opinion before, the greater the number of physical and psychological ailments “cured” by a particular product or other type of intervention, the greater the need to be skeptical about it.

Mindfulness is certainly no exception.

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Overhyped and oversold

Some of the people who are most troubled by all the hype behind the recent mindfulness trend are the ones who are most involved in researching its possible benefits.

One of those researchers is Thomas Plante, a psychologist at Santa Clara University.

Earlier this month, he posted a commentary on Psychology Today’s website about the more compelling problems with the mindfulness craze. One has to do with it being oversold:

Mindfulness is a terrific meditative practice that has some research support suggesting that it can be very helpful with a variety of problems such as stressanxietydepressionPTSDattention troubles, coping with medical problems, and so forth. However, it is not a panacea for whatever ails you. For example, mindfulness doesn’t cure cancer or heart disease, it doesn’t cure bipolar illness or major depression, it doesn’t make an abusive and unhappy marriage a loving one, it doesn’t make an awful job a good one, and it won’t solve homelessness, racism, or economic inequality. …

While research on mindfulness has exploded since 2007 most studies are correlational and those that do incorporate true experimental randomized trials often use either a no treatment or a wait list control group rather than other well established stress reduction or treatment interventions for comparison. Thus, these studies basically find that mindfulness is better than nothing. Those that do use established interventions as comparison groups in randomized trials generally find that mindfulness works about as well as the others interventions such as exercise, prayer, pleasant activities (including watching television), and so forth. So, studies suggest that mindfulness may be as good, but not necessarily better, than other well established approaches.

Mindfulness isn’t magic and it doesn’t solve all of the problems of the world or of individuals. It is a helpful tool, one among many, that might help people reduce stress, cope with challenges in life, and better regulate mood.  There are also many other tools, including other meditative and contemplative ones, with much more research to support their use.

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Advocates, not scientists

Another problem with mindfulness, says Plante, is that too many of the researchers, clinicians and others most vocal about its benefits are advocates, not scientists:

I have been attending professional conferences for decades and almost every lecture, paper, symposium, or panel I’ve attended on mindfulness lacks the scientific neutrality that is necessary to thoughtfully and critically assess the data. The presenters are typically advocates not scientists in that they sing the praises of mindfulness without the more objective neutrality of the scientist. Certainly, all researchers want their hypotheses confirmed and supported by their data but too often advocacy for the practice of mindfulness seems to trump empiricism. When this occurs, it is no longer science at all.

The motives of many of the organizations and individuals promoting mindfulness also raise concerns, as Plante explains:

Companies that encourage mindfulness among their employees to help them manage their work stress and work-life balance may not necessarily do much about actually providing better living wages, family leave plans, retirement benefits, and other tangible and practical considerations to treat workers better. Perhaps they think that if their employees will be more mindful then they’ll complain less about their working conditions. Their message may be: “If you’re not happy, meditate, but don’t complain.”

Helpful, but not magical

“Don’t get me wrong,” Plante concludes. “I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the saying goes. Mindfulness has been shown to be beneficial for a variety of issues.”

“But mindfulness isn’t special or magical,” he adds. “It is one of many tools that can be utilized to improve the lives of people. And if people promote mindfulness for only self-gain then the hypocrisy of it all can be rather breathtaking.”

FMI: You can read Plante’s commentary on Psychology Today’s website.